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Friends, foes greet Obama in Portland

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Friends, foes greet Obama in Portland

PORTLAND — President Barack Obama's visit to Portland on a nearly 70-degree day Thursday brought out hundreds of fans and foes alike.

Obama's visit was one stop on a cross-country tour to promote the benefits of a sweeping health-care reform law he signed into law just over a week ago.

Supporters of the president, many of whom waited for hours in the pouring rain on Wednesday to secure tickets, seemed content to bask in the warm sun while waiting for the doors to the Portland Expo to open.

Opponents, meanwhile, protested at the corner of Park Avenue and Weymouth Street. Most were upset with not only with Obama, but with Democrats and Republicans alike.

Many wore shirts with American Flags on them, rang bells symbolizing freedom and held signs equating the president to a socialist, communist or tyrant whose health-care law would bankrupt America and steal the freedoms of its citizens.

Although protesters and supporters were in close proximity, their demonstrations were largely civil. Only sporadic arguing broke out between members of the opposing groups.

Chris Cinquemani, communications director of the Maine Heritage Policy Center, estimated that more than 200 people responded to an e-mail request sent to 7,000 people calling for a protest.

There was one message Cinquemani wanted to deliver to the president, as well as Democratic U.S. Reps. Chellie Pingree and Mike Michaud, both of whom supported the bill.

"We will not be fooled and we will not be silent." he said. "We will remember this in November and beyond."

Frank and Pat Giordano, both 63, travelled from Newport to protest the president's visit. Each had hand-made signs written on Styrofoam insulation. One said "Obama and Congress are traiters (sic) to our Constitution," while another read "Obama and Congress have condemned our children and grand children to financial slavery."

Like many other protesters, the Giordanos, who would not provide their party affiliation, were upset not only with Obama and his Democratic majority, but Republicans, too.

"It's not just Obama. It started before him" Frank Giordano said, noting the bank and auto industry bailouts. "It's both (parties)."

Bridgeton resident Roxy Hagerman, a 55-year-old owner of a hair salon, said she was concerned that the new health-care law would actually increase costs and make her a criminal when she couldn't afford her own coverage.

"I will have to cut hair behind bars to support myself," Hagerman said.

Hagerman was surrounded by signs claiming the law would kill babies and the elderly and calling Obama the "Marxist in Chief."

Portland resident Karen Eustice, 45, a Republican who believes in the Tea Party movement, carried a sign that read "Happy April's Fools Day. Free Kool Aid." She said the sign was meant to criticize Obama supporters, who she thinks are blindly following him.

"They're lined up to take their Kool Aid," she said. "They're followers. They're not exactly informed."

Seth Diemond, 22, said he was at the rally to support not only Obama's health-care policy, but the overall agenda of the Obama administration. The political science major at the University of Southern Maine said health-care reform didn't go far enough. 

"It's a good starting point," said Diemond, who skipped class to attend the event. "His domestic policies are clearly headed in the right direction."

Rumford resident Tony Grasruck, a 23-year-old economics major, said those who believe the law will increase health-care costs are misinformed. He noted a Congressional Budget Office report that it will save more than $100 billion over the next decade.

"It's definitely going to lower costs, especially for small businesses," Grasruck said.

But Obama was also being protested by some unlikely people, including those upset with the war, his embrace of nuclear power and others calling for immigration reform.

Mark Ronan, a 62-year-old Solon resident, was holding a banner that read "Bring Our War Dollars Home." The registered Independent reluctantly admitted voting for Obama – a vote he apparently regrets.

"Within hours of getting into office he was ordering drone strikes on civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan," Ronan said.

Ronan said the health-care law was nothing more than a giveaway to insurance and pharmaceutical companies. "We need a single-payer system," he said.

Shortly before 2 p.m., the crowds began to swell. Portland police walked along Park Avenue instructing residents with apartments overlooking the street to close their windows.

As Obama's arrival grew imminent, the protester's chants grew more spirited. Shouts of "No-Bama" and spontaneous renditions of "God Bless America" and the National Anthem broke out.

Supporters, however, were content with their silence, offering only faint and brief chants of "Yes We Can"and "Obama."

As Obama arrived a little after 3 p.m., his motorcade was greeted with cheers and jeers. The president's limo drove directly into the Expo, without many people noticing. Police videographers taped the crowd and apartment buildings as the president rode by.

After his speech, the motorcade sped away as fast as it arrived, but Obama flashed a large smile and waved to a large gathering of protesters from the back of his bullet-proof limousine.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net

Photo: Paul Cunningham
Obama backers form a line across Park Avenue.